Liberal Zionists in the U.S. shouldn’t get their hopes up about any peace camp emerging from the next Israeli elections. Peace talks are not even being discussed in the campaign; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s message about Palestinians, “Be very afraid,” continues to resonate with the Israeli Jewish public. The ruling Israeli coalition is likely to be just as rightwing as the last one, and even if liberal Zionist savior Isaac Herzog of Labor becomes prime minister, he isn’t likely to push for negotiations with Palestinians.
This was the message from two liberal Israeli experts who spoke about the upcoming elections to liberal Zionist groups in the U.S. in the last ten days. One was Mikhael Manekin of the Israeli thinktank Molad, speaking to J Street by phone. The other was Gershom Gorenberg, speaking to the New Israel Fund, at a private home in New York last Sunday night, an event I paid to attend.
Manekin said there are three likely outcomes of the election. “The safest bet is actually a pretty frustrating one:” a governing coalition of Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud Party and the ultra-orthodox. The second most likely outcome is a “unity government” coalition of Netanyahu and Labor with Netanyahu as Prime Minister and Herzog as a minister. Leaders on both sides have ruled this out; and Manekin said it would be very hard for liberal Labor members to accept such a situation. Third, and “least plausible,” is a coalition led by Zionist Camp, the center-left combination of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua Party that would “pull in all the [Palestinian] minorities, by consent or as part of the coalition,” with a lot of small parties. Manekin said this is the least stable combination; such a government won’t survive for a year and a half.
Will any of these coalitions even try to make peace with Palestinians? “Most Israelis have no reason at this point to think about the occupation more than they think about the price of housing,” Manekin said. With no international pressure on Israel to make peace, only a government led by progressive forces would even undertake a push for peace, Manekin said, and that is unlikely to come out of this election. Even if a progressive government takes power, that doesn’t mean it would push for negotiations.
Manekin said the unending settlements project has come up in this election, as opposed to the 2013 elections, inasmuch as centrist Yesh Atid, representing middle class voters, has described settlement supporters “as a special interest group” who make demands on the public till. “One can talk about settlements and one can tall about occupations, albeit in a roundabout way.”
At the event last Sunday night in NY, author and historian Gorenberg declined to make predictions. But he was often dire in his pronouncements.
Everyone in Israel suffers from “Bibi fatigue,” he said. From the Kulanu Party to the Zionist Camp to Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, everyone wants to replace Netanyahu, but most of them support Netanyahu’s message re the outside world: “Be very afraid.”
It’s not good politics, but it is legitimate and we should not reject the fact that most of us as Jews are post traumatic, and it’s very easy to be afraid. It may not be an accurate description of the political situation, but it’s certainly something that resonates.
Gorenberg described the millions of Palestinians with no votes and no rights under occupation as the “brontosaurus in the room” for Israel, but “curiously [the issue of peace negotiations] has remained sort of in the background” in the election. The only one who voices a need for a two-state solution is Tzipi Livni. One reason the last government fell—and it was the second shortest government in the history of Israel, he pointed out– is that Livni took on coalition partner Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party on the issue a year ago. When he said that Israel has to fight international efforts to delegitimize Israel, Livni suggested an ad for Bennett’s vision of Israel: In South Africa blacks were second class citizens. Here they’re not even citizens!
If polls are right and there is a victory of the right, Gorenberg said, this will mean “further erosion of democracy” in Israel, postponement of negotiations even as the country’s international situation gets worse, and more strained relations with the United States. We will see “a wider gap between the liberal majority of American Jews and Israel,” and greater cognitive dissonance for those Jews when they see a rightwing country. They’ll ask: “How could a Jewish country do this?”
None of these issues would disappear with a Labor led government, but at least that government would offer the “possibility of a way out,” Gorenberg said.
His strongest words were for American Jews. On the one hand it is illiberal of Jews to believe that a Jewish country “should have been liberal.” The whole point of Israel was to allow Jews to “have a normal country.” So you have people on the left and right, racists and anti-racists.
But he called on liberal American Jews to speak up about the “the damage caused to Israel and to American Jewry” by the link forged by Netanyahu with one political party in the U.S., the Republican Party. Gorenberg said he dreamed that leading American Jews or better, Jewish organizations, would sign a letter in an Israeli newspaper saying, “‘We as American Jews oppose the identification of Israel with one political party in the United States’. I’m not expecting it but I sure would like to see it.”
“You can decide what form your support for Israel will take,” Gorenberg said to the Jews in the audience. “You do not have the option of not taking a stance. Existentially, this option has been eliminated for you.” Because Jewish organizations already claim to speak for you.
He did not address Jews who have responded to the situation by declaring their opposition to Zionism, and their refusal to support Israel.
Speaking of cognitive dissonance, both Gorenberg and Manekin made clear how much support there was for the Gaza war in the Israeli electorate. Gorenberg said sharply that he opposed the war but was also an “opponent of the ease with which people outside Israel judged Israel during the war.” It was a “very complicated” situation, he said; and it’s a mistake to say that Israelis were crazy to support the war. While Manekin said that the left has to find a language of security to appeal to the Israeli public. A third of the country was “not able to function” for two months during the Gaza conflict, he said, and the left has to find a way to address people’s concerns about that. Not a word about Palestinian slaughter. Though Manekin said that no society confronts human rights issues in elections.
Both men said that the new unified list of Arab-backed parties presents a challenge to the Israeli system. Gorenberg pointed out that when about 11 Knesset members from these parties are unavailable to participate in forming a governing coalition, that coalition has to come up with a supermajority of 61 out of 109 seats. And why aren’t Palestinian-backed parties in the ruling coalitions? That is the “elephant in the room,” Gorenberg said. Arab-backed parties have been included only once, in Yitzhak Rabin’s second term. (I have long compared the electoral situation in Israel to the U.S. in 1964, when the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, which included black people’s votes, demanded to be seated at the Democratic Party’s nominating convention.)
P.S. Read Al Jazeera’s excellent interview with Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian member of Knesset, describing the hardening rightwing discourse in Israeli Jewish politics and the lack of any difference between Labor and Likud in policies on the ground.
I’d also note that Gorenberg’s description of Jews as Post-Traumatic is just what Alice Rothchild said at Hunter College last week and that Roger Cohen is saying in his new book, The Girl From Human Street. I am not that way, and in fact I believe others have a right to express impatience with this Jewish understanding of ourselves (it’s not politically realistic, as Gorenberg concedes); but I do believe my attitude is aberrational inside my generation and older ones.